We use a book called A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. Its author John Brierley claims that today’s walk of 36 kilometres, adjusted to include the ascent, is one of the most difficult on the Camino. It is.
Steep climb at Villafranca
We begin in Villafranca just at sunup and immediately upon crossing the river near our hotel we began to climb on a steep mountain trail as the town diminishes in the distance below us. We could walk along a busy road but chose the steeper, more scenic route. We ascend almost 400 metres over a distance of the first 10 kilometres, mostly on sometimes narrow mountain paths and when we level out we are walking through groves of well-tended chestnut trees.
It is in the shade of those chestnut groves, on a rocky dirt path that we have a reunion with a Toronto couple who we had met several times along the Camino. We walk together for a while but he is just overcoming his tendinitis and they are going to stop in an albergue short of O’Cebreiro, which is our destination. We pledge to get together in Toronto to reminisce once we are all back in Canada.
Descent into Valcarce Valley
Then it is a knee bending walk back down into the Valcarce Valley and along the roads that wind along the valley’s floor. It has taken us three hours, first to climb and then to descend and we spend another three hours walking either alongside a busy roadway, with cement barriers provided, or walking on the shoulders of smaller and secondary asphalt roads. Well above us the trucks and fast car traffic is speeding along an incredible raised highway that bridges the valley. I pass this brief observation along to Camino planners and tenders: Far too much of its path is either on roads or beside them. What can you do about that?
After about 10 kilometres of road walking, we start to climb again toward our destination of O’Cebreiro, a very small town perched atop a narrow mountain ledge. The last stage of that climb will rise from 600 to 1,300 meters over a distance of 10 kilometres, the steepest ascent on the whole Camino. The sun is out and the temperature is 25 Celsius.
I began to fantasize about taking a taxi as we walk through a hard scrabble little town called Herrerias. For some reason this occurs to me as I watch three horses standing together in a field adjacent to the road, touching heads and flicking their tails in the heat. Just then a taxi van appears but it is filled with hikers wanting to avoid the hot and hard climb. When about 20 minutes later the same taxi returns, I flag it down and soon we are on our way up the steep and switch backed road.
The driver is exuberant, too much so for my liking. He keeps honking his horn and shouting “Buen Camino” at pilgrims straining under their heavy packs on the steep path beside the road. With each horn blast, I slide further down in the seat as I recognize people I have been walking with scant hours before.
Just as we arrive the driver points to road sign for O’Cebreiro and calls back to us saying that we are now in Galicia. Indeed as he maneuvers the last switch backed turns toward the village, we enter Spain’s most northwesterly province.
O’Cebreiro, population 50, is a beautiful little place perched on the knife edge on a mountain ridge in Galicia. Everything here seems to be made of stone: the dwellings, the streets, the retaining walls, and the little church dating back to the ninth century.
I count only one family dwelling in the village. Everything else in the single street is given over to lodging, shops or restaurants for tourists, of whom there are many, mostly pilgrims on the way to Santiago. Despite having all of that commerce packed onto one small mountain ledge, I can’t think of any spot along the route which is more scenic.
A bed for Brigit
Someone else we meet along the trail today was Brigit, a shy young German woman of perhaps 35 who usually hikes alone. We had met her earlier on the trail in the company of two other Germans over dinner one evening. The next time we saw her was several days back in Astorga. She asked if she could dine with us because she does not like to eat alone.
She works for the tax department in the German government and has six and eight year old daughters as well as a partner. She is taking six weeks to walk the Camino while her partner remains with the children. She calls them occasionally and sends postcards every day.
We saw her on the trail earlier today and she hiked on ahead of us. She is surprised to find us here when she arrives, until I explain about the taxi. She says that the albergue is full and she was turned away, as were others. All other accommodation is booked as well. As one gets closer to Santiago, the number of people heading there increases and all of them have to be accommodated. She will either have to hike on to the next town down the mountain or sleep outside in temperatures dropping down to 5 Celsius.
Fortunately, we have booked ahead so at bedtime we spirit Brigit into our room. We spread out some extra woolen blankets to serve as a makeshift mattress and she unfurls her sleeping bag. We all sleep well.